by Molière in a version by Martin Crimp.

Comedy Theatre Panton Street SW1Y 4DN To 13 March 2010.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr One interval.

TICKETS 0844 871 7612. (£3 transaction fee by ‘phone and online).
Review: Carole Woddis 22 December.

Mistaking a bludgeon for a rapier.
What a difference a few years can make. Martin Crimp’s first makeover of Molière’s 1666 masterpiece made a glowing appearance in 1996. I wrote then that Lindsay Posner’s Young Vic production was `sheer heaven’ and that `the English language had never sounded sharper’. I was pretty keen too on Peter Hall’s version two years later in Ranjit Bolt’s sparkling adaptation. I called both of them a romp with serious intent.

The problem with Thea Sharrock’s production, updated by Crimp, with the star attractions of Damian Lewis, Keira Knightley, Tara Fitzgerald, Dominic Rowan, Tim McMullan, Chuk Iwuji, Kelly Price and Nicholas Le Prevost, is that humour is a little thin on the ground. Though The Misanthrope is a bitter satire on social hypocrisy and the superficiality of metropolitan artistic and media folk, there is a good deal of fun to be had along the way.

Only in the last five minutes does Sharrock manage to let fly with an image of wonderfully bewigged and costumed whirling 17th century figures turning on the departing figure of the misanthropic Alceste, perfectly encapsulating the greasy-pole cruelty against which Molière – and Crimp to a degree – are setting their face.

The other problem is that Crimp’s initial relocation from Parisian gilt to 1990s post-modern London, now further updated to our celebrity-obsessed 21st century, has ironically itself become so heavily laden with modish cultural references it’s like ploughing through an A-Z of populist box-ticking.

It’s still a brilliant exercise in rhyming verse; and there is something particularly witty about watching Knightley satirising herself as a young Hollywood starlet in love with superficial social glamour.

She is by no means outclassed by Lewis who has the difficult job of imbuing Alceste with something other than self-righteous fury. He’s not always successful. But then neither is most of the cast – with perhaps the exception of Rowan as Alceste’s friend, John, and Price as Ellen, a Lyn Barber-type journalist – who also fail to find variety, tone or convincing character.

Hildegard Bechtler’s design stylishly harks back while echoing today. But satire should be a rapier. This feels more like a bludgeon.

John: Dominic Rowan.
Alceste: Damian Lewis.
Covington: Tim McMullan.
Jennifer: Keira Knightley.
Ellen: Kelly Price.
Alexander: Nicholas Le Prevost.
Julian: Chuk Iwuji.
Messenger: James Hogg.
Marcia: Tara FitzGerald.
Simon: James Hogg.

Director: Thea Sharrock.
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler.
Lighting: Peter Mumford.
Sound: Ian Dickinson for Autograph.
Costume: Amy Roberts.
Dialect coach: Jill McCullough.
Voice coach: Barbara Houseman.
Movement: Fin Walker.
Fight director: Alison de Burgh.

2009-12-27 00:28:27

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